St Stephen is regarded as the first Christian martyr. He was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Apostles when there was dissatisfaction about the distribution of alms. In the first reading of today, the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of how Stephen was tried by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy against Moses and God and also of speaking against the Temple and the Law. He was tried, found guilty and stoned to death.
The Gospel text for the feast of today is part of the Mission Discourse of Matthew. The sayings found in Matthew’s Mission Discourse here are found in the Eschatological Discourse of Mark (Mk 13:9-13). This is an indication that for Matthew, Mission is already eschatological and this is proved through the life and death of Stephen. The punishment, which is referred to here, is not random, but official punishment from members of organised authority. Even in this difficult situation the disciples are offered encouragement. They will depend not on their own strength, but on the Holy Spirit. They are to be missionaries even in the courtroom. Their imprisonment and trial must be regarded as an opportunity to make mission known. Mission takes priority even over family ties and if family ties have to be broken because of mission then so be it. The affirmation of the coming of the Son of Man is probably meant to provide succour to the missionaries in their distress.
Stephen had not read the Mission Discourse and yet had been influenced by the life, Mission and Death of his Master Jesus Christ. He was also confident of the resurrection and of victory even in the face of defeat and death. He knew that if he continued to stand for the truth, he would indeed be victorious.
It is important to note that Stephen did not go around looking for trouble nor did he desire martyrdom for the sake of dying for Jesus. However, he was unafraid to stand for the truth even if it meant giving up his life.The Jesus who challenged Stephen is the same Jesus who challenges us today. He is not calling us here to be sadists and look for suffering, persecution and pain. Rather he is challenging us to go about doing what we have to do, to be as prudent as possible about it and if despite that persecution, suffering and pain come, to be prepared and ready for it and not to be afraid.